As a student or professional you’ll come across many different note-taking methods and strategies, but one of the most popular (for good reason!) is the Cornell Notes method.

So what’s it all about? We’re going to explore how Cornell notes work, what the benefits are, and what it works best for – plus some great apps, templates and resources!

Let’s get started!

N.B. Whilst some note-taking methods are more popular than others, what’s most important is that you find one that works for you (and is well suited to your subject, job or business!).

So if you fancy trying some alternative note-taking methods too, great news: we’ve reviewed the top 6 strategies just for you!

What is the Cornell note-taking method?

The Cornell notes system was originally devised by Professor Walter Pauk of Cornell University in the 1950s – hence the name!

It’s a note-taking strategy that has stood the test of time, remaining popular today. Indeed, the Cornell method is frequently recommended by high schools and universities, as research has found that teaching the method can improve student achievement.

It’s a simple but effective system, and although it looks a little confusing to start with, trust me: it’s worth the effort!

The Cornell layout

Cornell notes divide your page and your note-taking into four distinct sections: title, cues, notes, and summary.

Let’s review what each section should contain:

  • Title: the top of the page should contain the course and/or topic title, plus the date of your notes
  • Cues: the left-hand margin column is for keywords, phrases, subtopics and questions. These “cues” help you to organize your notes and pinpoint where relevant notes and answers can be found
  • Notes: the large right-hand column is where your notes go. Keep them lined up with your cues, and start a new line for each new note or point
  • Summary: this section forms a footer at the bottom of the page and should contain a brief summary of the main concepts covered on each page.

The summary section is the most important part of the Cornell method – that’s where the information really finds its way into your memory.

On a standard sheet of paper, your Cornell notes template should look like this (perhaps a tad longer!):

cornell notes method

N.B. You don’t have to be strict about the exact section sizes, just keep the proportions in mind when setting up your page – you need enough room for the notes section!

(If you’re using lined paper, you can use the margin for noting the topic on each page or include it in your cue column.)


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    How to use Cornell notes

    Once you’ve got your handwritten grid or digital template set up, how do you actually use the Cornell notes method?

    One important thing to remember is that this note-taking strategy requires two stages: during and after your class, lecture or meeting.

    During your class

    Whether you’re using a digital or handwritten grid, make sure you’ve got it set up for every page of notes you’re likely to create – less to worry about whilst you’re scribbling down information!

    During your class, your main focus should be the notes column. The key thing is to make sure each subtopic or new point is on a new line – you don’t want to have a jumble of information.

    You also need to make sure you leave enough space between each “cue” or subtopic.

    N.B. You can fill in your cues column either as you go, or immediately afterwards. There are pros and cons to both techniques, and which one you pick really depends you and how organised your notes end up being!

    Afterwards

    Here’s where there’s a little more work involved than some other note-taking strategies!

    The Cornell method requires you to take a few minutes immediately after your meeting or class (or as soon as you can), to jot down your thoughts in the summary section for each page.

    Keep it simple. You’ll need a clear and easy overview when you come back to your notes.

    Doing this as soon as possible ensures that the key information is still fresh in your mind.

    In my opinion, the best way to approach summary box is to scribble the TLDR (or too-long-didn’t-read!) version of the each page of notes for your lecture in the time after your class wraps up – taking those extra 5 mins will be really worth it in the long run!

    Here’s an example of how your Cornell notes should look when you’ve finished:

    cornell notes method example

    Reviewing your notes

    There is one final stage of using Cornell notes, and it’s actually one of the key benefits of this method! Because your notes will be so well organised and have a handy summary, they make great revision tools.

    You can use them to do retrieval practice. Simply cover the notes column and quiz yourself on the cues! It’s a little like using flashcards or Q&A Ultranotes.

    • This is really important for memory, learning, and building lasting knowledge – retrieval practice is one of our favourite techniques here at Exam Study Expert!

    And just like that – effective, efficient notes and a study guide all in one!

    What are the benefits of using the Cornell notes system?

    So why is setting up your notes with the Cornell method so effective?

    Well, there are several benefits, and they all revolve around the way you process and review information.

    Using the Cornell note-taking strategy help you to:

    • Organise your thoughts and information as you’re absorbing it
    • Introduce and expand on topics in a structured format
    • Learn how to summarise information efficiently
    • Easily pinpoint central concepts and ideas
    • Immediately reflect and process what you’ve learnt whilst creating a summary in your own words
    • Boost your memory of what was covered
    • Easily review your notes later using retrieval practice methods – and cut down on review prep time!

    Plus, there’s plenty of research that’s shown the benefits of the Cornell method as a learning strategy (more on that below!).

    For those of you who are digital note-takers, there are also some perks! By using a digital Cornell notes template on your favourite app, you can easily organise and edit your notes at later stages. And it’s easy to correct mistakes and align cues and notes.

    Happily though, Cornell notes are effective whether you’re working with a notebook and pen, or on your laptop or tablet! (And there are plenty of benefits to your memory of taking notes by hand).


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      What type of notes does the Cornell method work best for?

      It’s true that not every note-taking method works well in every situation. But there are plenty that Cornell notes lend themselves to well:

      • It’s a great system for students and professionals who need to take notes in a fast-paced environment and ensure they can optimise their reviewing afterwards
      • Students and professionals who need to regularly review their notes will definitely appreciate the organised format and summary section
      • It’s a great tool for most subjects, especially those that cover wider concepts rather than lots of detailed facts. It can also work well for science and mathematics
        • For example, if you’ve got lots of facts to jot down, you might run out of space in your notes column, or struggle to summarise efficiently!

      There has been plenty of recent research into the effectiveness of the Cornell note-taking strategy in different contexts. Studies have shown that it’s a great tool for:

      Cornell notes resources: our recommendations!

      If you prefer taking your notes by hand, then the good news is:

      … that all you need for some effective Cornell notes is a notebook and pen! Make sure you pick out a notebook that’s big enough to fit the grid, plus everything you need to say.

      If you’re a digital note-taker however, there are some great Cornell notes resources, apps and templates available to streamline your process:

      1.      Columns app

      You can easily take Cornell notes with the Columns app, which is designed for this task. Plus, you can edit and rearrange notes into searchable folders for each subject or project, and export to PDF. Sounds great!

      Available for: Mac. And supports a wide range of languages.

      2.      Evernote app

      Evernote is a popular notes app that includes a template for taking Cornell notes – simply apply it to a note and the classic Cornell formatting will be right at your fingertips.

      Available for: Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. Free and paid plans available.

      3.      Goodnotes app

      Another popular note-taking app, Goodnotes is great for taking handwritten digital notes on your iPad, and a Cornell notes template comes as standard – perfect!

      Available for: Mac, iOS

      4.      Noteshelf app

      If you’re a fan of digital handwritten notes, another top app is Noteshelf. This app also comes with a Cornell notes template, which is sure to make your life easier.

      Available for: Mac, iOS, Android

      There are of course, plenty of other apps and templates out there – have a browse and find one that suits you! You can also create your own Cornell notes templates in Word, OneNote and more …

      Get note-taking today!

      You should be all set to head out today with your notebook or laptop and start taking Cornell notes in your next meeting or lecture!

      So good luck 😊

      And remember – if you give the Cornell notes method a try and find it’s not for you, there are plenty of other strategies to help you improve your memory.

      We’ve reviewed the 6 best note-taking strategies: check it out for all the info you need to make an informed choice!


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